The food industry is working overtime to create consumer-friendly whole-grain products, but unless its activity is matched by a considerable improvement in consumer understanding of whole grains, its efforts could end up going to seed. Lynda Searby reports
In recommending that adults consume three portions of whole grains per day, the US Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in 2005, fundamentally changed the way in which grain-based foods are manufactured, marketed and perceived.
Prior to the new guidelines, sales of whole-grain products were virtually flat — the US whole-grain market grew a measly one per cent from 2000 to 2004, according to a Packaged Facts report.
The new guidelines triggered a flurry of new product development and reformulation activity spearheaded by the likes of General Mills, Kellogg's and Sara Lee, which took the whole-grain movement into the mainstream and sent sales of whole-grain products on an upwards trajectory.
Baked whole-grain cookies topped the list of product categories to benefit, notching up a 1,364 per cent increase in sales in 2005, followed by muffins, buns, breads, crackers and cereals (source: AC Nielsen). Packaged Facts predicts that market growth will stabilise at around six per cent in 2009, taking the value of the whole-grain market to around $7.5 billion.
In order for this market potential to be realised, though, the food industry needs to find a way of making sure that what consumers say about whole grains and what they do are one and the same thing. According to the Whole Grains Council, people want to eat more whole grains, yet the average American eats less than one daily serving.
So what is stopping these good intentions from translating into purchasing action?
There's no doubt that taste can be a barrier to consumer acceptance. Kyle Marinkovich, marketing manager with global ingredients supplier Cargill, says this is certainly the case with whole wheats. "Whole wheats are sometimes perceived by the consumer as having negative sensory characteristics like a more bitter taste, a rougher texture and a darker colour than refined wheats."
Food manufacturers are moving to give consumers what they want by making whole-grain products more consumer friendly. Last July, two US bakeries, Sara Lee and IBC (Interstate Bakeries Corporation), launched white whole-grain breads. A similar product was launched in Denmark in June by Schulstad, a subsidiary of Nordic food group Cerealia.
Ultragrain, a whole-wheat white flour from Omaha-based food and ingredients giant ConAgra Foods, is the flour power behind the Sara Lee Soft & Smooth whole-grain white bread.
The patent-pending technology is said to combine whole wheat's goodness with the refined-flour taste and texture most mainstream consumers love.
"Today's health-conscious consumers want to derive the maximum nutritional value from foods they already enjoy," says Mike Veal, director of marketing at ConAgra. "Products made with Ultragrain offer the American consumer mainstream appeal and whole-grain nutrition."
Ultragrain is made from a proprietary variety of Platte wheat, specially grown to have a sweeter, milder taste and lighter colour than conventional wheat. Patent-pending grinding technology maintains the flour's milder taste and develops the smooth texture, while preserving the fibre, antioxidants, phytonutrients and other essential nutrients found in the whole-wheat bran and germ.
Similarly, Cargill affiliate Horizon Milling is marketing a white spring whole-wheat flour under the WheatSelect brand. "It's a great way to get more whole grain into the consumer's diet because it reduces some of the perceived detrimental sensory attributes that are associated with whole grains," says Marinkovich.
WheatSelect flour was developed through an alliance with breeding company WestBred. The breeding and selection process was paired with extensive testing to develop proprietary wheat varieties. "We control the supply chain so we breed for selected characteristics; therefore, the product has the characteristics we're looking for from a sensory standpoint — a light colour, soft texture and mild taste. Advanced flour-milling processes produce a fine-grind flour that optimises granulation size for baking performance. The end result is a product that delivers improved baking characteristics like volume, as well as mixing and processing tolerance."
Leonard Mosher, owner of Mosher Products, and a farmer of organic grains in Wyoming, believes the future is bright for white flour.
"Most of the flour in the US is made from hard red winter grain, but I think white wheat will be one of the next grains to take off. White wheat produces about 10 per cent more flour than red and is also sweeter, so you don't need to add as much sugar to processed products."
He says the only problem at the moment is that millers can't get enough of it. "It's more expensive than red because there's rising demand for it and not much grain out there, but soon I think we'll see farmers across the US raising it as the dominant flour."
There's no doubt that food manufacturers are ready for these ingredients, but can consumers keep up? Not according to a new study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which reported that consumers have only a vague understanding of whole grains and difficulties identifying whole-grain products in-store.
Participants from three main groups of American adults — food and nutrition professionals, health-club members, and individuals representing various segments of the general population — were asked a number of questions to determine their level of familiarity with whole-grain foods.
While the majority of participants were aware of the term 'whole grain,' only a small percentage reported using it.
The main perception as to why foods are whole grain was that they involved little or no processing. Reading labels was reported as the best way to identify whole-grain products, and to a lesser extent, consumers said they used appearance and colour to identify whole grains. The problem with using colour as an indicator is that colouring agents are sometimes added to refined grain products, and white whole-grain products may be disregarded.
The word 'wheat' was also mentioned by participants in the study, and was often misconstrued to mean whole grain, according to the researchers.
This confusion was echoed in a recent survey commissioned by Sara Lee, which reported that most Americans who buy enriched wheat bread mistakenly believe they are buying 100 per cent wheat bread.
Enriched wheat breads — often made from enriched wheat flour and a small proportion of whole-wheat flour — are the most popular type of wheat bread sold in US grocery stores. But of the 650 million loaves of wheat bread baked in the US each year, 477 million lack 100 per cent whole-grain nutrition, according to Information Resources data.
Breads can be honey wheat, cracked wheat or multi grain, but if 'wheat flour,' 'unbleached wheat flour' or 'unbleached enriched wheat flour' feature on the ingredients list, there's no whole grain — these are just sneaky ways of labelling enriched wheat flour.
Even if consumers do get as far as deducing that a product contains whole grains, they may still be none the wiser as to how much of their recommended daily whole-grain intake they are actually getting. Phrases such as 'made with whole grains' give away very little, as a mere sprinkling of whole-wheat flour could justify such a claim. Cargill's Marinkovich says: "There is definition around what a whole grain is, but there aren't 'good source' or 'excellent source' levels from a regulatory standpoint. So you can make a claim, but it doesn't tell the consumer how many grams of whole grain they are getting."
Linda Pizzey, president and CEO of Pizzey's Milling, and a Canada-based flaxseed specialist, has another bugbear with the whole-grain guidelines — flax was refused entry to the whole-grains club because the FDA does not consider it as meeting its whole-grain criteria.
Flax producers feel they have been miscast because, unlike most other seed oils and legumes, flax is commonly used with all its component parts intact when sold as a flour. Flax producers are currently lobbying the FDA to get flax included in the guidelines.
"Flax really should be included because it fits the nutritional profile of a whole grain," says Pizzey. "It has the three components and they act synergistically — when you use the whole grain you get better results than if you just use the omega-3 component or the fibre component."
The inability to claim whole-grain status for flax hasn't stopped food manufacturers from including the omega-3 and lignan-rich seed in a growing number of applications. Nature's Path, for example, can't seem to get enough flaxseed into its products. The company's two top-selling cereals are Pumpkin FlaxPlus Granola and FlaxPlus Flakes cereal, and it has just launched FlaxPlus Pumpkin Raisin Crunch as a new line extension.
Pizzey's has also developed a flaxseed ingredient for beverage applications. The ingredient is described as a finely milled golden flaxseed, which can be held in a suspension and is suitable for both fruit-juice and milk applications. Berries GoMega from Odwalla Beverages is a blended juice drink that uses the ingredient to give it an omega-3 sell.
Canada-based Bioriginal offers food manufacturers a range of flax-based ingredients in milled seed, oil, soft-gel and powder formats. BioFlaxElite with cranberry for urinary-tract health was launched last May, and has since been joined by BioFlaxElite with oat beta-glucan for cholesterol and heart health.
"Combining milled flaxseed with other ingredients allows the consumer to obtain the health benefits of both ingredients for a specific condition in one convenient package," explains Kristen Trautman, product category co-ordinator.
One grain that looks likely to play a bigger role on the whole-grain stage is barley.
According to the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, Americans on average consume 118g wheat per day, but only a half gram of barley. However, several ingredient innovations and a newly approved FDA heart-health claim look set to change this.
The claim was submitted by the National Barley Foods Council and partially underwritten by Cargill, which has a barley beta-glucan ingredient, Barliv. However, Cargill is not the only company jumping aboard the barley bandwagon.
Canada's Cevena Bioproducts is pushing its oat- or barley-glucan Viscofiber ingredient as a vehicle for delivering lower cholesterol, improved glycaemic response, glucose management and increased satiety.
Key to the efficacy of Viscofiber is its viscosity, according to Cevena, as this ensures the soluble fibre forms a soft gel in the stomach.
Viscofiber oat contains up to 50 per cent soluble fibre, while Viscofiber barley contains up to 60 per cent soluble fibre.
Swedish company NutriTech, meanwhile, has developed a barley beta-glucan ingredient branded Aktivated Barley. NutriTech says the advantage of Aktivated Barley over conventional barley beta-glucan ingredients lies in the fact that the beta-glucans used have been captured at the point of sprouting in a nondegraded form. Seventy per cent of the beta-glucan in Aktivated Barley turns to gel, providing slow-burning energy and lowering LDL cholesterol.
NutriTech has launched two end products in the UK that are formulated with Aktivated Barley. Aktiv Everyday is a chocolate-covered energy bar, and Aktiv Meal Replacement Drink is a ready-to-mix beverage containing whey protein, rapeseed oil and fructose.